Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous nine-month barnstorming of the United States in 1831–32 is rightly recognized as the seminal moment in the evolution of the political philosophy of the French lawyer, historian, and government official, just as his magnum opus Democracy in America crystallizes the lessons he learned and the conclusions he drew from his journey.

But Tocqueville’s political development both preceded and succeeded his American adventure, shaped as it was by the revolutionary Reign of Terror, which ended shortly before his early childhood, the Bourbon Restoration of his adolescence, and the emergence of the Second Republic in his late adulthood. During his own political career in the French legislature, Tocqueville rigorously but imperfectly applied to his native country the lessons he had learned in his sojourn abroad—lessons that continue to ramify today.

In The Man Who Understood Democracy, the University of Virginia’s Olivier Zunz, the foremost living Tocqueville expert, sensitively and masterfully examines the Frenchman’s life in full and explores “how Tocqueville developed his ideas in the context of the charged political events of his lifetime.” Tocqueville, writes Zunz, “recognized he had aristocratic instincts,” yet nevertheless “was a democrat ‘by reason’ and worked hard to advance the great modern shift from aristocracy to democracy,” a form of government that, as the Frenchman put it,  “breaks the chain” and “severs the links” between individuals and an oppressive regime.

Born in 1805, Tocqueville grew up in the aftermath of such a regime, after his aristocratic parents had managed to recover much of the fortune they lost to the Terror. Tocqueville’s father served as a loyal official to the restored monarchy, and in 1824, he secured an appointment for Alexis as an apprentice prosecutor at the court in Versailles. But the younger Tocqueville quickly grew disillusioned with the Bourbons, especially after the bloody July 1830 insurrection that deposed King Charles X. The young prosecutor blamed Charles and his retinue, who had, as he put it, “behaved as cowards and aren’t worth a thousandth part of the blood that has been spilled for their quarrel.” Soon thereafter, Tocqueville and his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont successfully petitioned their superiors for unpaid leave to perform a comparative analysis of the prison system in the young United States.

The duo arrived in New York on May 9, 1831, and visited major American cities in the north and south as well as some of the frontier’s farthest reaches. Among Tocqueville’s earliest observations were that no one he encountered “entertained the idea that a republic was not the best possible form of government or that the people might not have the right to choose whatever government they want” and that “the vast majority of people have faith in human wisdom and common sense, and faith in the doctrine of human perfectibility.”

From New York, Tocqueville and Beaumont traveled west to Buffalo; Erie, Michigan; and, ultimately, Green Bay, Wisconsin—encountering pioneers, Native Americans, and no shortage of prisons. Doubling back to French Canada and then down to New England, Tocqueville, according to Zunz, distinguished between the Quebecois, who “seemed resigned to powerlessness,” and Bostonians, who “proudly believed in their own intellectual superiority.” (Plus ça change…) What would become Tocqueville’s analysis of the tyranny of the majority was sparked by an exchange he had with Jared Sparks, a Unitarian minister and future president of Harvard, who approvingly noted “the political dogma is that the majority is always right” but that “the governor’s veto and above all the power of judges to refuse to enforce unconstitutional laws” functioned as bulwarks against unjust majoritarianism.

The two then moved south to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, along the way visiting prisons such as Pennsylvania’s innovative Eastern State Penitentiary. From there, they traveled by steamboat along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, traversing the fault line between slave and free states, ultimately returning up the Atlantic Coast to D.C. and New York, and meeting Sam Houston, President Andrew Jackson, and other luminaries. In a moment of weakness, Tocqueville despaired to his mother of his “jumble of notes” and “disconnected ideas,” wondering “Will I ever publish anything about this country?”


Did he ever. Shortly after his return to France, Tocqueville began compiling the first volume of Democracy in America, an authoritative and masterly project that assessed issues of liberty, equality, governance, and civil society.  Tocqueville wrote that he thought of American equality “not as a means of leveling but of uplifting,” and he conceived of “an extreme point at which liberty and equality touch and become one.” He admired the balance between state and federal authorities anchored in the Constitution, and he praised the robust voluntary associations Americans favored. “The freedom most natural to man, after the freedom to act alone, is the freedom to combine his efforts with those of his fellow man and to act in common,” Tocqueville wrote. His critique of enforced conformity and the tyranny of the majority included his excoriation of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans; it also reflected, writes Zunz, “the tactics of the French left,” which had espoused unadulterated Rousseauism.

Tocqueville then attempted to put his theories into practice, seeking election to the French Chamber of Deputies in a variety of districts. But his idealism and independence thwarted his ambitions for years until he finally broke through in 1839 in Valognes, a village in Normandy, where he ousted a corrupt incumbent. Stymied in his initial attempts at electoral reform, Tocqueville lamented the cravenness of his fellow deputies:

I cannot tell you how painful it is to live a political life amidst these half-hearted pieties, fickle ideas, and mediocre men with whom you must deal every day, despite the contempt they inspire in you. I have made great strides to get here and now that I am here, I regret having given up the position of observant philosopher, and I despair of having been condemned to live in such a society, among such wretches for colleagues.

His second term saw more success, however modest, in promoting democratic change, beginning, fittingly, with prison reform, where he persuaded his colleagues to adopt the cellular isolation model of rehabilitation he had first observed in Pennsylvania. He also pressed his fellow deputies to integrate religion and politics, specifically in the educational realm, consistent with his claim in Democracy in America that “religion shows the way to enlightenment.” And as he entertained the ideas of early socialists, he reiterated his earlier views on inequality, correctly predicting that “one day the political battle will pit the haves against the have nots” and that “the battlefield shall be property.”

But Tocqueville applied his American education unevenly. Abhorring slavery and noting that the French were “the legitimate authors of the abolitionist cause,” being among the first to “spread the notion throughout the universe that all men were equal before the law,” he championed the liberation of slaves in France’s Caribbean colonies. At the same time, he vigorously opposed efforts by Britain, which had already abolished slavery, to police the slave trade among French colonists. In addition, to the great dismay of his friend John Stuart Mill, Tocqueville vociferously resisted British hegemony, including in an 1839 dispute between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire that embroiled the great powers. Finally, he passionately backed the French colonization project in Algeria as a means of unleashing French democratic greatness, even justifying tactics such as burning crops and imprisoning civilians as “unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people that wants to wage war on the Arabs is obliged to submit.” Zunz concludes on this record that Tocqueville “proved unwilling to cede even a small fraction of national sovereignty in defense of the universal human freedom he claimed to support.”

When the 1848 Revolution ushered in the Second Republic and the opportunity to draft a new constitution, however, Tocqueville returned to his American-inspired democratic roots and argued to the newly formed Constituent Assembly, “No other country in the world can provide us with such useful examples or inspire such legitimate hopes” as the United States, where “the republic is not a dictatorship exercised in the name of liberty; it is liberty itself, the authentic, true liberty of all citizens.” He convinced his fellow assemblymen to embrace an American-style separation of executive and legislative powers, with a president directly elected by the people, although he failed to establish a bicameral legislature.

But these noble efforts foundered on the shoals of the December 1851 coup by Louis Napoleon that abruptly scuttled the Second Republic and evicted Tocqueville from power. Neither the French people nor their ruling class, it seemed, possessed the civic virtues of the Americans. “I feel like a foreigner in my own country,” Tocqueville lamented, “surrounded by people who do not share the ideas which, to my mind, are indispensable to human dignity.” Flash forward more than 170 years, and Tocqueville’s dirge sounds eerily similar to the sentiments that many classical liberals now express, as authoritarian tendencies have crept in on both left and right in the United States, France, and elsewhere in the democratic world.

Thus, Tocqueville’s sensitivity to the blessings and concerns of our political system are especially relevant today. Both political theory and practice owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. The Frenchman, as Zunz puts it, “translated his passion for liberty into a deep and demanding appreciation of democracy.” It now falls to us, his ideological descendants in liberal society, to follow his lead and apply to our polities the wise lessons he gleaned, limned, and lived nearly 200 years ago. In The Man Who Understood Democracy, Zunz has provided an engaging and informative resource from which to draw.

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